03/30/2010 11:00PM

Back to where it all came together


LEXINGTON, Ky. - It might be argued that when you win the Eclipse Award for top jockey in North America, there's nowhere to go but down.

Of course, Julien Leparoux, the 2009 Eclipse winner, wouldn't look at it that way. The 26-year-old Frenchman is loving life despite what may appear to be a sluggish start to his repeating as champion jockey. As the 2010 Keeneland spring meet gets under way Friday, Leparoux is happy to be back at the racetrack where he first proved he had the big-time skills to make it anywhere.

"I am always happy to be back at Keeneland," said Leparoux.

It was four years ago this spring that Leparoux first came to prominence on a national stage. He had shattered several riding records at Turfway Park that winter, but it was only by tying for leading rider with Rafael Bejarano at the 2006 Keeneland spring meet that Leparoux began to earn the respect of North American fans and horsemen.

Since then, Leparoux has won three outright Keeneland titles, not to mention a handful of riding titles elsewhere and a slew of major races, including five Breeders' Cup events. In 2009, his mounts won 247 races and more than $18.5 million in purses, earning him an Eclipse to bookend with the one he earned in 2006 as top apprentice.

His second winter at Gulfstream Park yielded solid, if not outstanding, results, as he recently departed the south Florida track as the seventh-leading rider at the 2010 meet with 36 wins and nearly $1.8 million in earnings. His mount ROI (return on investment) of $0.88 for every $2 wagered suggests he underperformed, especially considering his ROI was lower than every other rider in the top 15 at Gulfstream, but Leparoux would rather focus on what he did do, not what he didn't do.

"We won five stakes, just like last year," he correctly noted. "I got too many seconds" - 44 - "for what I like, but overall, I was okay with how my meet went. Hopefully we'll do better at Keeneland."

Perhaps the most noteworthy occurrence during the first quarter of his 2010 came not at Gulfstream but at Aqueduct, where Leparoux rode Awesome Act to win the March 6 Gotham Stakes in a race that stamped the colt as one of the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby. Leparoux will ride in eight of the 10 races here opening day but will miss Saturday to ride Awesome Act as the top challenger to Eskendereya in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

"He is an exciting horse," said Leparoux. "I think he will run big Saturday."

Leparoux's agent, Steve Bass, said he believes Saturday will be the only day that Leparoux will miss during the Keeneland meet, which runs through April 23. Leparoux also rides in several other Saturday stakes at Aqueduct, including the Grade 1 Carter Handicap aboard Warrior's Reward.

"We've come north with some pretty good business lined up so far, especially in a few stakes," said Bass, a former jockey himself. Informed Decision, who will make her seasonal debut Thursday in the Grade 1 Vinery Madison, is one of those top Keeneland stakes mounts that Leparoux has on his agenda.

Leparoux, who last week made his first trip to ride in Dubai - "it was a great experience," he said - is optimistic his business could peak at the impending Keeneland and Churchill Downs meets.

"Of course every year we want to be leading rider," he said. "Now I will try to go out and do it."